“Am I afraid of death?” he asked in a mere whisper.
“Of course.” Alyona leaned back on her chair and sighed contentedly.
“You are afraid of it. Here, everyone is afraid of death. Almost everyone. The ones who know they’re going to die, at least.”
“I am not going to die,” Alyona said with a smile. “I know that everyone is alive. Everything is alive. And there is no death. There is no death anywhere.”
Similar to Vita Nostra, Daughter from the Dark defies simple attempts at explanation. While it is straightforward on the surface, it’s clear to a reader that there are many depths and dangers lying beneath that topmost narrative layer. It’s almost absurdist, in some respects. Humorous at times. It’s a power struggle between two opposite characters – one who is driven and focused in the extreme, and one who is cowardly, fearful, and selfish. Both are dysfunctional in their own unique ways, struggling to navigate a world filled with death, pain, and hunger. They hurt one another, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, joined by translator Julia Hersey, take us on a dark dive into the human psyche once again, forcing the brightness of the unknown to cast stark shadows that define the edges of our own reality.
Alexey Grimalsky is a DJ on Radio Sweetheart, a show where he speaks pleasant nonsense into the ears of those who are looking for a little comfort and escape from the day today. Alyona is a strange young girl from another world who carries a stuffed bear named Mishutka. Alexey takes her in and, much to his regret, links their lives irrevocably. When they first meet in a dark alley, Alexey makes a half-hearted attempt to engage her before moving on. The little girl disturbs him; something about the confidence and reserve she exudes feels fundamentally wrong given her age and the context of their meeting. He exits the alley, continuing on with his business. She’s already in the past, forgotten, another street urchin with a bad family. Outside the mouth of the alley, however, Alexey is accosted by a group of miscreant youths who set a pitbull on him. He rushes back, catching sight of her and grabbing her by the hand to escape the dog. She pauses, tossing Mishutka back into the alley.
He cursed, thinking she’d ask him to go back for the bear, but instead she just stood there, waiting. He was going to ask her what her problem was when he heard the scream—nothing like the wild, raucous yells of teens having a lark. No, this was a shriek, a wail. It sounded like the kind of scream that ripped apart someone’s vocal cords.
The dog groaned. There was a sound of flesh slapping the wall—a horrible, viscous noise—and then everything was quiet except for the sound of stomping feet, which died down in the distance.
Thus is our stage set. Alexey, running away from the world and its myriad dangers. Alyona, taking control. Mishutka, slaughter. Alexey struggles constantly to force Alyona into the role of a young girl. He attempts to exert control over her, parent her, and yet she turns the tables onto him every time. The two are perfectly balanced foils. Even their companions have a degree of symmetry to them: Alexey’s own “protector,” Whiskas, is a completely ineffective paid bouncer associated with the local crime scene. He is only as loyal as what he’s paid. Mishutka, of course, is both disconcertingly effective while also being motivated by a deep, genuine affection for Alyona. When Alexey calls on Whiskas to help him handle Alyona, he’s made to feel weak and cowardly. Mishutka, on the other hand, is a source of strength for Alyona. She cares for him just as much as he cares for her. Their relationship is symbiotic, unlike the strained and parasitic relationship that exists between Alexey and Whiskas.
“I am not hungry, but Mishutka is,” the girl said solemnly. “Do you have any honey?”
“I guess . . .” The request—to feed her stuffed animal—seemed the most normal thing this little girl had done all night. In the kitchen she sat on a stool, put her bear on the edge of the table, and folded her hands in her lap. Mishutka sat leaning to the side, staring ahead with button eyes, plush paws limp by his sides. A shard of glass protruded from one of the paws. Shuddering inside, Aspirin removed the glass with a napkin and tossed it into the trash.
“Mishutka says thank you very much. So how about that honey?” the girl asked.
Alyona, of course, is not merely a strange girl with a dangerous stuffed animal. She’s not here by chance; she’s looking for her brother. He could be anyone. When he fell from the realm of being that he and Alyona are originally from, he forgot his identity and became human in order to create and compose. Their language is music, and it conveys ideas and emotions in their purest form. In order to call her brother back to himself, Alyona must master playing his song using his violin strings. She ran away from home herself to come after him. Again, she stands as a polar opposite to Alexey, who is only ever concerned with his own happiness.
The girl led on with the melody—if the sounds made by the violin could be called a melody, assuming it had anything remotely in common with music as he knew it. Aspirin’s eyes watered as if from a bright light. He saw his expression in the glass, a distorted, broken reflection. He saw shifting shadows, the midnight-black hair of Luba from Pervomaysk; the drunken face of alcoholic composer Kostya, replaced by the laughing Nadya in her sailor’s outfit; Whiskas stared at something above Aspirin’s head; Irina gazed back at him with silent reproach, and Aspirin longed for the violin to stop, but it kept on playing, playing as if nothing in the world could stop the goddamn girl.
Her drive and dedication to her goals brings out the worst in Alexey. It brings his flaws into the light. His pure selfishness causes him to sabotage his own relationships and push people away. He’s done this to past girlfriends, he does it to Alyona, and he does it to the one good thing in his life – his neighbor, Irina. Irina is kinda, caring, and serves to anchor the story with a splash of normalcy. Although Irina has her own shadows following her, all of them are of the purely mundane sort. She brings medicine over for Alyona when she’s sick. She calls Alexey to make sure he’s doing well. And yet, Alexey pushes her out and away the moment she threatens his current dog-eat-dog lifestyle. He goes back to his day job at the radio and continues writing articles on the “functionality” of women as a side-gig.
The magic of Alyona’s music is often reminiscent to that of Vita Nostra, and contains small, compelling hints that Alyona’s world is either an off-shoot or perhaps and altered version of the one inhabited by Sasha, Kostya, and company. Where Vita Nostra focuses on the power of language, words, and grammar, Daughter from the Dark uses music as a force of expression and primal communication. It’s both clearer and more mysterious; although its impacts are, perhaps, easier to understand, the source of the power and just how their homeland works is entirely opaque.
A bit of speculation regarding the connection between Vita Nostra and Daughter From the Dark follows, but suffice it to say that I was deeply impressed by Daughter from the Dark. The book is dark, surreal, absurd, and balanced perfectly on a knife’s edge. It cuts in just the right places, slicing away at the reader’s preconceived notions of reality. It challenges Alexey, and it challenges everyone who dares to consume it.
** VITA NOSTRA SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING SECTION**
One of the prevailing theories surrounding the ending of Vita Nostra is that when Sasha reverberated, she created a new universe. Although I personally interpreted it as a command that restructured the existing universe, there are a few lines in Daughter from the Dark that had me questioning this. From Vita Nostra:
“In the beginning was the Word.”
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Luminous dust folds into a flat silver curve with two soft spiral arms.
“Do not be afraid.”
Given the emphasis on time magic and loops in Vita Nostra, I wasn’t convinced that this was a truly new world. I assumed that Sasha, as a verb in the imperative mood, and, specifically, a Password, had unraveled the pieces of the extant universe to recreate it from the start. Her reverberation came from her telling the world how to be. It removed the fear in herself and altered underlying grammatical rules. I thought she altered the meaning of “To love” and created a definition that was different from the one that previous grammatical rules defined. I thought she had created a new love that can exist without fear: the combination of creation and love, but with her command to remove the fear from within it.
Daughter from the Dark has a small line that challenges this view. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Perhaps I’m reading too much into things. Or, perhaps, Sasha, as a Password and a command, unlocked a land of love and music. Or, she became it. Her reverberation verb was, “I refuse to be afraid.” She refused to be fear, and thus she became something that was not fear. She “knew she was heard.” Perhaps, just perhaps, she became music. She unlocked a path into a new plane, and filled it with herself.
Daughter from the Dark
“Everything is different there,” the girl said, stirring her tea. “There is no fear.”
“How can there be no fear?”
She thought about it for a second. Then, “Take your music—you like it because it carries a little spark, right? You all can feel it—even if you don’t understand it. That’s why you like music in which there is a spark, a reflection. Well, that spark is a reflection of the world I came from—and only just barely at that.”
“Not everyone likes this sort of music,” Aspirin said, surprised. “But where you’re from, they not only like it, but revere it?”
“We don’t revere it. We live it. We are it.”
This is supported even further by the tools she was given during her schooling. Both the CD filled with silence and the black album are defined as silence. They destroy her own sense of self, specifically blocking out sound. In order to reverberate, she first had to accept the silence, then then overcome it with love and creation – which, I would argue, are the defining characteristics of composing music.
Sasha opened the very last page. She focused her eyes on the white triangle in the middle and held her breath.
The three dots disappeared. For a few seconds, Sasha was suspended in the blackness, as absolute as the silence in Sterkh’s headphones. And then out of the blackness came – seeping through, developed – a city surrounded by an enormous wall that reached up to the sky.
Out of the silence comes a city. Sasha must unlock it, fight the monsters within it, and tell them that they are not fear. No one will be afraid. “Do not be afraid.” She will fill the blackness and silence with herself, reverberating. Even when the exam team is trying to cajole her and command her (as though one could command an imperative verb), they tell her:
“Let the sun shine always. I believe in the world without evil. Let a hundred flowers bloom. You are the favorite instrument of Speech… Reverberate!”
Naturally, she says no. For her, “love is to be afraid.” To refuse to be afraid, she must cease to be a Word at all and become something that is not fear. Creation is fearless. Song is fearless. And thus, she has composed a world. Sasha’s reverberation was a complete and total metamorphosis. She did not alter a word. She did not alter grammar. She ceased to be a Word at all, and instead, she became a Song.
** END SPOILERS **
Please – leave your thoughts below if you’ve read both Vita Nostra and Daughter from the Dark, because I would deeply love to discuss the above theory in depth. Until I began looking at the connections between the two works in writing this review, I’ll confess I expected these to be merely superficial hints and easter eggs. Instead, I’ve managed to rework my entire understanding of both Vita Nostra and Daughter from the Dark. Each book is layered further than I could have imagined, and I truly cannot wait for more in the Metamorphosis series from these authors.
About the Author
Marina and Sergey Dyachenko — co-authors of novels, short fiction, plays and scripts.
They write in Russian and Ukrainian languages with several novels published in translation in the United States. The primary genres of their books are modern speculative fiction, fantasy, and literary tales.
Julia Mei Hersey — translator of Vita Nostra and Daughter from the Dark. Follow her on Twitter.